Home » General

Denver school reform: never a sure thing

By Sari Levy, Senior Advisor for A+ Denver and a federal policy consultant for DFER

As Los Angeles’ March school board race approaches, California education reformers are biting their nails. Teachers’ union allies are close to gaining a majority on the board, openly threatening Supt. John Deasy’s job. However, this high-profile race has diverted attention from a smaller storm, but one that could be disastrous for Denver - and other cities looking to Denver as a role model.

“You’re a racist!” yelled one Denver school board member at another during a recent board meeting. The board had met to fill a midterm vacancy for which 25 people had submitted their names for a single seat on a 7-member board. The insult was unfounded, stemming from political charades, not from any legitimately racist action. (Read more here.)

This kind of antagonistic discourse is symptomatic of an ideologically misaligned school board in one of the most progressive districts in one of the most reform-friendly states.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg could potentially be fired by this dysfunctional board. Reformers are nervous about this threat because even though they don’t agree with him on everything, he has earned a reputation for being committed, effective, and willing to take on difficult issues.

Under Superintendent Boasberg (and before him, Sup. Bennet) the Denver school system significantly improved. As recently as 2000, Denver Public Schools (DPS) was a failing school district caught in a downward spiral. Buildings languished half-empty and upper and middle class families had little interest in sending their kids to all but a handful of schools in the district. Over the past six years, under strong leadership, DPS began to show progress. The district overhauled its teacher compensation and evaluation system; welcomed new charter schools; started new autonomous district (system) schools; pushed for charter/district school co-location; and started replacing and restructuring some of the worst schools in the district.

Academic gains have risen more sharply than any time in the past 30 years. For example, between 2005 and 2011, Denver’s 4th graders overall made progress in all four tested subject areas, and eighth graders improved faster than students statewide in all subjects, especially in math. Graduation rates have increased by 20 points from 2006 to 2012. Buildings are once more bustling with kids. CMOs like Denver School of Science and Technology, STRIVE and KIPP have expanded. (See here for data.)

It’s not all roses, of course. Plenty has been said about all the things still wrong with DPS. If ACT scores are any sign, we’re still graduating a lot of kids who can barely read and write. Case in point: just 13% of high school juniors in Denver scored 24 or above on the ACT - the minimum score the state considers ready for a 4-year college. We realize there is work to be done. And Boasberg has made it clear that he is capable of taking DPS to the next level of success.

But, as I mentioned, an election is on the horizon.

Boasberg currently has just four allies in favor of reform on the quarrelsome 7-member school board, with one of those seats being filled in a couple of weeks. In addition, four more seats will be up in the fall. This could spell trouble because of the board’s 3-member anti-reform block that typically tries to vote down reform measures. (See here.) Candidates who will likely run in the fall will also be split on issues like choice, accountability, school closures and teacher compensation. 

With Boasberg at the helm, and the majority of members still on his side, school reform advocates are still maintaining control. The upcoming elections, however, could cause a power shift. If the balance shifts in the Nov. elections, Boasberg’s administration will almost certainly be handed their walking papers. (Read more.) And, for the sake of DPS’ children, we can’t let that happen.

To get to the point where every child in Denver has the option to attend a great school, we are going to have to redouble reform efforts, not slide back into the comfort zone: an antiquated system that serves adult interests over those of kids. We’ve seen other cities including Philadelphia and San Diego falter once transformation began - and may be witnessing the same thing in L.A. Denver is one of few cities that has actually sustained reform for more than a few years.

Denver needs more strong, reform-oriented candidates on the school board. Over twenty people have already committed to running for school board this fall to fill the 4 seats that are approaching vacancy, but there will probably be many more. As with any election, I’m sure some of the candidates will be extremely thoughtful and others will put the “crazy” in crazy

Electing the strongest of these candidates is crucial for Denver’s kids, but Denver is really just the canary in the coalmine. If a city that has seen positive tangible results under the leadership of a strong superintendent in a reform-oriented state can’t stay the course, what city can buck the dismal pattern of district reform failures? Slamming the breaks now will be kind of like stopping in the middle of the intersection: a warning sign for other districts and reformers, not an inspiration.

Sari Levy is a Senior Advisor for A+ Denver and a federal policy consultant with Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Previously, she was the Associate Director of Get Smart Schools (GSS). Before joining GSS, Sari worked for the Piton Foundation and the Colorado Children's Campaign, and was Deputy Press Secretary for the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. She earned her M.B.A. in 2007 from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and holds a Bachelor's degree in English from Trinity University. A native of Boise, Idaho, Sari grew up ski racing.